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27 November 2013

Tears for puppet horses, French prostitution and going for silver

Jenni Murray is presenter of Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4.

By Jenni Murray


Three days to go until Judgement Day, when the panel will gather at the beautiful Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester to judge the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting. I feel much as I did on the night before my final university exam – on 20th-century drama – when I reread all the set plays, stayed up most of the night in a blind panic and fell asleep only to dream about a pusillanimous (John Osborne) rhinoceros (Ionesco) running at Ubu (Jarry). Now I’m dreaming of Russian dolls and abused young women, butchery and war, homosexuality in Uganda and the horrors of life in North Korea. A wide range of themes – big and small – and a recognition of how difficult choosing the best new playwriting will be. Back to the scripts.

I’m also looking forward to a show tomorrow. Oh, the joy of finally having daughters (not yet in law but well established) who do the kinds of things with pleasure that sons almost never do without massive hints or coercion. Lovely flowers sitting on my kitchen table after a small favour for one and a night at the theatre with the other.

I thought my elder son would jump at the chance to see War Horse at the Lowry in Salford but, no, he had to work late. The text reads: “All this life-saving means antisocial hours.” He’s a vet and we used to ride together, which is why I thought War Horse would be right up his street. My suspicion is that he dislikes going to the theatre with me in case I pump him for opinions and analysis. His girlfriend, Katie, on the other hand, invariably accepts my invitations with delight.


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It’s the first night of War Horse and I’m fizzing with anticipation. I’d seen it before in London – a friend’s son, Tom Wilton, has been a member of the cast for ages, so a group of us supportive mums went en masse and loved it.

It’s a perishing cold night in Manchester so the bold, modern building, bathed in red light, is warm and welcoming. We drink a comforting glass of Merlot, have time for a quick chat with friends, find our seats and I dig into my handbag for the tissues. I know in advance that it’s going to be a weepie and, sure enough, as the tiny colt disappears into the background and the huge adult Joey bursts on to the stage to make his first entrance, I feel the first trickle of a tear. That’s the mascara gone for a Burton and the play has barely begun.

The extraordinary thing about the puppet horses is that they’re almost more real than the real thing. You forget the poor, extraordinarily athletic young men and women – three for each horse – as you watch the animals breathe, listen, watch, responding throughout to the action around them. It’s a remarkable feat and I do hope that the National Theatre invests in first-class physiotherapy for them.

At the end, the entire theatre rises in a standing ovation. Very well deserved. Tomorrow I’ll be meeting Marianne Elliott, the co-director of the original production, as she’s one of the judges for the Bruntwood Prize. Can’t wait to tell her how much Katie and I were blown away by it.


We gather in the glamorous corporate boardroom of the Royal Exchange, still redolent with the grandeur of the wealthy Victorian merchants who used to buy and sell their goods there. Marianne tells me she was in the house at War Horse the night before and is clearly delighted that it’s still as fresh as when it was first performed.

The collection of judges is impressive. I feel that it’s going to be a tough few hours as tastes will be widely varied. There’s Michael Oglesby, who runs Bruntwood and funds the prize; Marianne and Greg Hersov of the Royal Exchange are directors at the top of their game; Benedict Nightingale is renowned as a critic; Tanika Gupta and David Eldridge are award-winning playwrights and Suranne Jones is an actor of note. (I’m a bit star-struck. I love her in Scott & Bailey.)

I’ve asked each judge to come with their top four. Every play on the shortlist gets a mention and there’s no obvious winner. We discuss and discuss some more. We have a break for a bite to eat and, finally, at 8pm, as the carols from the Christmas market in the street outside begin to die down, we have a majority verdict. A winner and three judges’ awards. No blood on the floor as far as I can see.


Up at the crack of dawn to present Woman’s Hour from Salford. The slavery story has just broken so we discuss the woeful history of domestic servitude and trafficked women in the UK and the attempts by the French president, François Hollande, to make it illegal in France to buy sex. I interview a prominent French novelist who has signed a petition called “Touche pas à ma pute!” – “Hands off my whore!” Oh, dear!

Then to the Royal Exchange to announce the prizewinner. It’s a delightful ceremony in which each playwright has been filmed discussing their work and actors perform an extract. The winner, Anna Jordan, with a play called Yen about the impact of poor parenting and pornography on young men, is delirious with delight. Home with a sense of a job well done.


A weekend planned of doing as little as possible. Get my hair done by my brilliant Manchester hairdresser, Olivier Morosini (French!), who’s in the process of trying to make me look like Christine Lagarde. After years of dyeing it to hold on to my natural brunette, I’ve decided silver is the way to go. It’s very on trend for women my age – think Lagarde or Mirren. He does his best but the source material (face, figure) doesn’t quite match up.

I love the hair but I’ve nowhere to go, just a comfy chair, Strictly, Borgen and a good book – the new Amy Tan in preparation for an interview. It’s sort of work but unadulterated pleasure, as well. Lucky me!

Jenni Murray presents “Woman’s Hour” on BBC Radio 4. She tweets as @whjm

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